Everything You Need to Know About the Oklahoma City Thunder's 2015-16 NBA Season

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistOctober 7, 2015

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - SEPTEMBER 28:  Kevin Durant #35, head coach Billy Donovan, Russell Westbrook #0 and Serge Ibaka #9 of the Oklahoma City Thunder pose for a portrait during 2015 NBA Media Day on September 28, 2015 at the Thunder Events Center in Edmond, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2015 NBAE (Photo by Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images)
Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

The Oklahoma City Thunder enter the 2015-16 NBA campaign with more pressure than this franchise has ever felt.

They're looking to make up for lost time after watching last season get torn apart by the injury bug. With Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka and Russell Westbrook missing a combined 88 games, it's incredible this group still scratched out 45 wins. But the year ultimately goes down as another wasted opportunity to cash in on this core's championship potential.

Contention is the annual aim for a team that ranks second in total wins over the past six seasons. That goal hasn't changed, though the urgency attached to it is at an all-time high. The next two summers are shrouded in uncertainty, as Durant (2016), Westbrook (2017) and Ibaka (2017) will all make their way to the open market.

This isn't simply a championship-or-bust season; it might hold championship-or-demolition implications. OKC's best negotiating ploy would be putting a ring on its superstars' fingers, and it's counting on a rookie NBA coach to make that happen.

Key Additions/Subtractions

May 1, 2015; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder new head coach Billy Donovan speaks to the media at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports
Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports
  • Additions: Cameron Payne (draft), Josh Huestis (draft rights)
  • Subtractions: Jeremy Lamb (trade), Perry Jones III (trade)

Cameron Payne, the 14th overall pick, served as the consolation prize for the club's injury-riddled year. He'll have good moments down the road, but minutes will be hard to find behind Westbrook and D.J. Augustin. Neither Jeremy Lamb nor Perry Jones III will be missed, and Josh Huestis will seldom be seen at the big-league level barring multiple injuries.

The Thunder's biggest offseason move didn't take place on the court. They parted with Scott Brooks after six-plus seasons together and handed the coaching reins to longtime Florida Gators skipper and two-time national champion Billy Donovan.

The 50-year-old's hand will start out strong with the league's top superstar tandem and a loaded supporting cast. But there's still work to be done. The rotation needs a clear direction, minutes may require careful management and this offense yearns for more creativity, ball movement and better spacing. Donovan is already making strides with the latter, via Anthony Slater of the Oklahoman:

Anthony Slater @anthonyVslater

Russell Westbrook notices more space in Billy Donovan's offense http://t.co/ClID5HgCin

Storylines to Watch

Health is critical to any NBA's team success, but it's a particularly sensitive subject for this franchise. The last three years have been derailed by injuries: Westbrook's torn meniscus in the 2013 playoffs, Ibaka's calf injury during the 2014 postseason and Durant's nagging foot problem that required three surgeries last season.

If the injury issues are put to rest, Donovan can work on implementing a clear hierarchy. The Thunder might not have had much roster turnover, but some players haven't suited up together and others are different than the last time they did.

Westbrook unleashed a previously-unseen level of dominance without Durant. Over his final 27 outings, the former tallied nine triple-doubles and averaged 31.3 points, 9.9 assists and 8.7 rebounds. If OKC finds a way to pair that Westbrook (minus some volume, but with more efficiency) with the Durant who cruised to the 2013-14 MVP without him, the Thunder could be unstoppable.

But Donovan has other mouths to feed. There's Enes Kanter, who's collecting $70 million over the next four seasons and had 11 20-point, 10-rebound outbursts in 26 appearances with OKC last season. There's Ibaka, who has played like a borderline All-Star before and, according to Thunder general manager Sam Presti, significantly raised his stock over the summer, via ESPN.com's Royce Young:

Royce Young @royceyoung

Presti on Ibaka: "I think Serge may have had the best summer of any of our players, just in terms of improvement and overall development."

Donovan is likely to find he has more players than rotation spots. He'll need to embrace the analytical data to find his best five-man combinations and use his interpersonal skills to keep everyone pursuing the same goal.

Donovan's predecessor came within three wins of the 2012 title. As stringent as this grading scale may seem, anything less than a championship run will be deemed a failure (barring another round of injury blows).

X-Factor: Dion Waiters

EDMOND, OK - SEPTEMBER 28:  Dion Waiters #3 of the Oklahoma City Thunder poses for a portrait during 2015 NBA Media Day on September 28, 2015 at the Thunder Events Center in Edmond, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by d
Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

The fact that Donovan hasn't settled on his starting shooting guard isn't surprising—but it should be. Based on talent alone, Dion Waiters could run circles around his competitors, Andre Roberson and Anthony Morrow. Roberson is a solid defender, but his perimeter shot is so futile (career 23.5 percent) opponents don't even guard against it. Morrow is the opposite, a lights-out shooter and nothing else.

Waiters brings a diverse skill set inside the lines. He's quick, athletic and strong as an ox. He can create for himself or his teammates, light the lamp from long range and lock down defensively. But the ball sticks to his hand far more than it should, he takes too many shots from inefficient areas and his defensive effort is maddeningly inconsistent.

He's always been impossible to predict, and his impending free agency only makes him more of a wild card.

"Waiters is a restricted free agent next summer, so there's a lot of potential for Contract Year Dion," wrote ESPN.com's Royce Young. "He's also going to be in a complex role that will have him sharing a lot of minutes and having to sacrifice shots. So he could wind up being Frustrated With His Role Dion."

Making the Leap: Enes Kanter

EDMOND, OK - SEPTEMBER 28:  Enes Kanter #11 of the Oklahoma City Thunder poses for a portrait during 2015 NBA Media Day on September 28, 2015 at the Thunder Events Center in Edmond, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by d
Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

Throughout their rise to relevance, the Thunder have never had a big man like Kanter. He's more luxury than necessity given the firepower around him, but his ability to score from inside and out adds another element to an offense that should reclaim its place among the NBA's elite.

The 23-year-old landed in the Sooner State at the trade deadline last season and promptly embarked on the most productive stretch of his career. The quantity and quality of his stat sheet was unlike any he tallied during his three-plus years with the Utah Jazz.

As an offense-only low-post scorer, he's an awkward fit on most rosters, and OKC's is no exception. The Thunder will need to protect him defensively with someone like Ibaka, at's on Donovan to figure out how to utilize Kanter's offensive gifts without stripping shots away from the stars. But Kanter is just starting to realize his potential, and in the right role, he'll make the Thunder even more of a nightmare to defend.

Best-Case Scenario

OAKLAND, CA - JANUARY 5:  Russell Westbrook #0 and Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder before the game against the Golden State Warriors on January 5, 2015 at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agr
Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

An ideal season for the Thunder is simple: good health and the type of good fortune that has often eluded them. Durant and Westbrook both make spirited runs at the MVP award, but they're so good that they steal each others' votes. Ibaka books his first All-Star appearance, while Waiters and Kanter launch OKC's second team up the reserve rankings.

Donovan tinkers just enough to give OKC top-five efficiency marks on both sides of the ball. The offense plays faster and smarter, swapping isolations for ball movement that yields threes and close-range looks. Defenders are more engaged, making this mob of length and athleticism even more powerful.

Sixty-plus wins later, the Thunder survive the Western Conference bloodbath and make this NBA Finals appearance a successful one.

Worst-Case Scenario

Feb 9, 2015; Denver, CO, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant (35) during the game against the Denver Nuggets at Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports
Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

Durant's foot problem resurfaces, and he's once again a part-time participant only. Donovan can't find enough touches to keep everyone happy. Westbrook reverts to last season's one-man-army mode, while Ibaka starves for shots. Waiters and Kanter are net-negatives when they step on the court, but the other wings and bigs aren't consistent enough to keep them off.

OKC finds itself battling for a low-level playoff berth again, and this fight ends the same as the last one.


OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - APRIL 19:  Serge Ibaka #9, Kevin Durant #35 and Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder talk during the Memphis Grizzlies in Game One of the Western Conference Quarterfinals of the NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena on A
Richard Rowe/Getty Images

If Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka stay healthy, the rest will take care of itself.

During the 616 minutes they shared the floor last season, the Thunder bludgeoned opponents by 11.4 points per 100 possessions. All three should theoretically be climbing toward or in their prime—Durant is the oldest at 27—and they're surrounded by a deeper supporting cast than they've ever had.

If the players buy in, Donovan can make everyone quickly forget that he's new to this level. He wisely assembled an experienced staff, headlined by former NBA head coaches Monty Williams and Maurice Cheeks, and Donovan has long been receptive to the information gleaned from advanced statistics.

On paper, the Thunder look like title contenders. Health permitting, that's how they should be expected to play. Their chance to claim the crown is as high as any in the Western Conference, but their run of misfortune always seem to surface at the least opportune times.

Final Record: 60-22

Division Standing: First in Northwest

Playoff Berth: Yes

Playoff Finish: Eliminated in Western Conference Finals

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.


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